By Alexander Christie-Miller for the Southeast European Times in Istanbul -- 02/12/10http://www.setimes.com/cocoon/setimes/xhtml/en_GB/features/setimes/features/2010/12/02/feature-03
For most residents of the Ikizdere valley, their home is simply "a gift from God".
But how exactly this gift should be used has become the focus of a bitter feud that may have repercussions far beyond its wooded, mountainous slopes in the northeastern Turkish province of Rize.
In late October, a natural and cultural protection board barred a government-backed plan to construct 22 hydroelectric dams in the valley by declaring it a "protected zone".
For ecologists and local associations who had been fighting the projects, it appeared to be a decisive victory.
But just days later, the government released an updated version of a draft environmental law which, if approved, some ecologists fear could expose to development at least 80 percent of Turkey's key biodiversity sites -- including Ikizdere.
Among other things, the new law would revoke the status of more than 1,000 "natural heritage sites", abolish the authority of local boards such as the one which has protected Ikizdere, and place the future of all these sites under the auspices of a new central board dominated by bureaucrats, who ecologists fear will dance to the government's tune.
"This act has the potential to cause huge and irreversible harm to nature," Engin Yilmaz, director of Turkish NGO the Nature Association, told SETimes.
The draft has prompted 73 Turkish civil society organizations to join together in protest. It also drew fire from the EU Commission in its 2010 progress report on Turkey released last month, in which it noted its 'concern' over the proposed abolition of the protected sites.
The commission highlighted the impact that Turkey's energy demands may be having on the environment. "There is growing concern about the negative effects on potentially protected species of flora and fauna of building new water and energy infrastructure in the eastern part of the country," the report said.
Turkey's burgeoning population and economy are posing an increasing threat to its vast ecological wealth. The population is booming, with an average age of 28. Its economy -- projected to expand by 7.3% this year -- is the fastest growing in Europe, and second only to China in the G20.
Its wildlife riches are equally impressive. A major bird migration hub, and positioned at the meeting point of three ecological regions, the country boasts nearly as many species as the rest of Europe combined.
This wealth is reflected in Ikizdere, which is ranked among the 200 most ecologically important valleys in the world because of its wealth of rare or endemic species.
"The valley is a gift of God to the people," said Kadem Eksi, a resident and campaigner against the dams. "It is green and beautiful and we want the next generation to be able to see it."
But the Turkish government reacted with fury to the protection ruling. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused opponents of "blocking our path".
"I do not recommend destroying nature, but God commands us to use the benefits of science, information and research," he told the Turkish media. "Let's benefit from these elements."
Campaigners fear the draft law will worsen what they claim is a "conflict of interest" within Turkey's Ministry of Environment.
Environmental Minister Veysel Eroglu described the cancellation of the Ikizdere dams as "madness". Before taking his current post, he was head of the State Hydraulic Works, which was rolled into the ministry when he took it over in 2007.
"There's an obvious conflict of interest," said Yilmaz. "[Eroglu] has been working as if his mission is building dams and hydroelectric projects."
The government ultimately envisions building 1,000 more dams in the northeast alone, projects it claims will bring economic benefits to the impoverished region.
Meanwhile, some residents of Ikizdere fear the benefits could be illusory -- and could deprive them of a more valuable resource in the long run.
"The beauty of the nature can attract tourism," Eksi told SETimes. "If the dams are constructed it is only energy companies that will make money."